China denies visas to producers of earthquake film

Documentary questions building methods, aid distribution

BEIJING -- The producers of a documentary exploring deadly school collapses in last year's Sichuan earthquake and the plight of bereaved parents have been denied Chinese visas to attend a Beijing showing, one of the men said Wednesday.

Beijing Independent Film Festival organizers extended the invitations after selecting "China's Unnatural Disaster: The Tears of Sichuan Province," as part of this week's program.

However, one of its producers, City University of New York professor Peter Kwong, said the Chinese consulate in New York had refused them visas. Officials gave no reason, but Kwong and the other producers said they believed it was due to government pressure.

"We appreciate the fact that our documentary was chosen, even though the government had shown strong dislike of it," Kwong said in an e-mail to the Associated Press.

Fearing anti-government sentiment, China's government has tried to squelch discussion of the collapse of almost 7,000 classrooms in the May 2008 quake, in which 5,335 students were killed. Authorities have harassed and detained parents who have demanded an investigation and justice for their lost children, along with reporters, volunteers, and lawyers seeking to help their cause.

The collapses were widely blamed on poor designs, shoddy construction and weak government oversight. While officials promised to investigate, they have yet to make their findings public.

While shooting footage in Sichuan, Kwong, directors and co-producers Jon Alpert and Matthew O'Neill, and others involved in the production said they were held for hours by local officials.

Kwong said that since the 38-minute documentary showed on HBO earlier this year, authorities have blocked its official Web site and repeatedly removed copies posted on the Web for download.

"We believe many Chinese citizens like the film because it presented the plight of the parents, whose children were killed during the earthquake, in their own voice with no narration of ours," said Kwong.

Despite the official hostility, the documentary is still scheduled to be shown at the festival on Thursday, said organizer Zhu Rikun. Zhu said he understood the producers were not able to attend because they had not obtained visas, but declined to speculate on the reasons behind that.

In an e-mail quoted by the New York Times, Alpert and O'Neill said the visa denial "fits in with a pattern of what seems to be a complete commitment on the part of this Chinese government to crush any inquiry into the possibility of wrongful deaths during the earthquake in Sichuan."

Alpert and O'Neill have directed numerous documentaries together, including the Emmy Award-winning "Baghdad ER."